Part 1 – Transition to the New Testament. Authentication of the Apostles
by Rev. Keith Watkins
This is the substance of a paper given at the Free Presbyterian Church Youth Conference, April 1996.
SURELY it cannot have escaped anyones notice that a most unwelcome tree has been growing in the garden of the professing church of Christ. Since the 1960s this tree has experienced phenomenal growth, and has now spread so profusely that there is hardly a corner to which its rapidly extending branches have not reached. And although Christian in name and evangelical in profession, wherever it goes, it casts a dark shadow over vital Biblical Christianity.
This is the tree of the charismatic movement, that section of Christendom which insists on the continuance today of the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit recorded in the New Testament, such as speaking with tongues unknown to the speaker, uttering divine prophecies and performing miraculous healings. In New Testament Greek, the word for gifts is charismata, which is why the movement has been called charismatic. In fact, the New Testament uses this word for gifts of any kind, ordinary as well as extraordinary. Nevertheless, in accordance with current usage and for purposes of clarity, this paper will use the term charismata to speak of the special gifts by which the charismatic movement claims to distinguish itself.1
There are two approaches to dealing with an unwanted tree. The first is to lop off the branches one by one. This we could do with the charismatic tree, beginning with some of its wilder branches: the disorderly irreverence of its worship; the deceitful hoax of its miracles; the blatant showmanship of its leadership; the false inspiration of its prophecies and revelations; the absurd manifestations of its Toronto blessing;2 the God-dishonouring and truth-denying embraces of its ecumenism. To cut away at its sensational and dramatic claims might be entertaining but not very edifying, nor indeed altogether effective, since we would allow the trunk of the tree to stand untouched. We might prune some of the excessive outgrowths that way, but a pruned charismatic is a charismatic still.
The second approach is to lay the axe to the very root of the tree and so hew down the whole altogether, root and branch. This is the approach that is adopted in this paper. A tree-felling axe sufficient to the task can be found only in the Biblical doctrine of cessationism. This doctrine, held by all kinds of orthodox Christians throughout the centuries, states that the charismatic gifts have completely ceased. The assertion that these gifts have not ceased lies at the very basis of the charismatic movement and thus the cessationist axe strikes at the very root of the tree. Once it is seen that, according to the Bible, God has long since ceased to give the charismata of the Holy Spirit, then and only then is it understood that the whole movement must be a delusion, and not of God. The axe of cessationism is a weapon mighty through God to the pulling down of each and every charismatic stronghold. Regrettably, in todays doctrinal confusion, cessationism is like the axe that one of the sons of the prophets let fall into the water. It remained hidden out of sight until Elisha caused it to float again (see 2 Kings 6:5-7). We need to plead with the God of Elisha to cause the doctrine of cessationism to surface once more.
Why have the charismatic gifts ceased? Surely if gifts of tongues, prophecies and healings were needed in New Testament times, they are still needed now? No! God, the giver of every good and perfect gift, does nothing without a reason. When He gave the charismata He did so for certain specific reasons to achieve certain defined purposes. Those reasons and purposes are clearly taught in the Word of God and here is the sharp edge of our axe: when we examine those purposes we find that they were all of a temporary nature, entirely confined to the period of the early New Testament church. Now that those purposes have been fulfilled it would be pointless and purposeless to give charismatic gifts. Therefore we may be sure that the gifts have ceased.
Four purposes may be established for the charismatic gifts, all of them temporary proving that the gifts are no longer needed: firstly, to mark the transition from the Old to the New Testament; secondly, to give authentication to the apostles; thirdly, to supply additional revelation whilst the canon of Scripture remained incomplete; and fourthly, to indicate a major and impending addition to the canon of Scripture revelation. In considering these purposes, effectively we are aiming four fatal blows to the root of the charismatic tree, to hew down the whole. If only these purposes were understood, there would no longer be a charismatic movement.
1.Transition to the New Testament
The first purpose of the special charismatic gifts was to mark the most important transition between the closing of the Old Testament dispensation and the opening of the New. Too frequently this aspect of the early history of the New Testament church has been neglected. The period during which God gave the extraordinary charismatic gifts was itself extraordinarily special. It was then that God began to administer His one covenant of grace in a new way. So momentous was this change that God gave the charismata to the people of the new covenant community to mark it in a most unmistakable manner.
In particular, the transition saw Gods saving dealings, which previously had been confined ordinarily to the Jews, now extended to the whole Gentile world. When we remember how difficult the prophet Jonah found it to accept Gods mercy being bestowed upon the Gentiles of Nineveh in one exceptional case, we can begin to understand how difficult it would be for a Jew to accept the more fundamental New Testament transition to embrace the Gentiles in general. The charismata were miracles designed to bring the Jews to acknowledge, as the Egyptian magicians had to do in another case: “This is the finger of God” (Exodus 8:19).
The Day of Pentecost was the official inauguration of the new dispensation. It is no coincidence that it was also the first day when any charismata were manifested in this case, by the use of tongues especially. Jews out of every nation under heaven were amazed to hear unlearned Galileans speaking fluently in the different languages of the nations of the earth. “What meaneth this?” they exclaimed in bewilderment. Peter lifted up his voice and explained that it meant the transition to the New Testament dispensation: “This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (Acts 2:16,17).
Why were they speaking in these different tongues? Because now in the new dispensation God would be worshipped among all nations, even by the Gentiles, so that “whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (verse 21). Whoever they were, whether Jew or Gentile, and whatever language they used, it would make no difference: if they called on the name of the Lord, they would be saved. So exceptional was this change in Gods administration of the covenant, that the Old Testament had promised that the Holy Spirit would mark it with charismatic gifts: prophecies; visions; and dreams. This was the apostolic understanding of the purpose of the charismata, on the very first day they were given.
When Gentiles in the household of Cornelius were indeed admitted into the covenant of grace, they were led therefore to speak in tongues (Acts 10:44-47). This was (as it were) the Gentile Pentecost, and the charismatic gift of tongues was the miraculous proof of transition, from the largely Jews-only dispensation of the Old Testament to the Gentile-inclusive dispensation of the New. Later, some of the Jews questioned what had taken place amongst the Gentiles how could it be of God? Peter defended it by referring them to the transitional purpose of the charismatic gifts: “Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did unto us, . . . what was I, that I could withstand God?” (Acts 11:17). This removed their doubts: “When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” (v.18). How did they come to accept the transition? By the evidence of the charismatic gift of tongues. That is what tongues were intended for.
Paul opened up the transitional purpose of the charismata in 1 Corinthians 14:21 when, referring to Isaiah 28:11, he wrote, “In the law it is written, With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people.” The gift of tongues was a sign to intimate that the Gentile dispensation had arrived. Further, it was a sign of judgment to unbelieving Jews: “Yet for all that will they not hear Me, saith the Lord. Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not” (verses 21,22). Because the Jews were so hard of heart, therefore God would gather the Gentiles and the different languages spoken by the early Christians were the death knell for the old Jewish dispensation.
This transition took place almost two thousand years ago. Is it even remotely possible that at the end of the twentieth century God would still be marking it with the special charismatic gifts? Of course not. God has sufficiently marked it already with the charismata of the first century, and they are now recorded in Scripture for us for all time. The fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD put a decisive end to the old Jewish economy, and since then no special gifts have been required for this purpose, for it is very plain and very clear that the transition has been completed. In proving that this first purpose of the charismata was temporary and fulfilled, we have laid the first blow of the cessationist axe to the root of the charismatic tree. The gifts have ceased.
2.Authentication of the Apostles
The second purpose of the charismatic gifts was one of authentication to ratify the apostles of the New Testament as the true and authentic messengers of the Lord. When God raised up extraordinary messengers, often He authenticated them by giving them power to work signs and wonders. When Moses was sent to the children of Israel in Egypt, he was afraid and said, “But, behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice” (Exodus 4:1). So God gave him power to work miracles to turn his rod into a serpent, to make his hand leprous, and to turn water into blood. Why? That by these signs “they may believe that the Lord God of their fathers . . . hath appeared unto thee” (verse 5). These special gifts were to authenticate Moses as Gods true messenger. Again, the many miracles that Elijah and Elisha did were to confirm and authenticate their extraordinary prophetic mission from God. For this reason the psalmist puts prophets and signs together in Psalm 74:9, “We see not our signs: there is no more any prophet: neither is there among us any that knoweth how long.” Miraculous signs were designed to authenticate Gods extraordinary messengers.
This was Gods method in the New Testament too. It was so with the Saviour Himself, “the Messenger of the covenant” (Malachi 3:1), for Peter was able to preach at Pentecost of “Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know” (Acts 2:22). Thus was the Messiah authenticated by the extraordinary signs that He did. Nicodemus understood this when he came to Jesus by night and said, “We know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him” (John 3:2). In answer to the question from John the Baptist, “Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?”, the Saviours words were simply, “Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see.” What things? The miraculous signs that He was doing: “The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up” (Mt 11:3-5). Those signs proved Him to be the One that should come, the sent Messiah.
If Moses the lawgiver, Elijah and Elisha the prophets, and even Jesus the Messiah were all authenticated by the signs that they did, surely we would expect that the apostles would also be authenticated as the inspired messengers of God. And so they were. Their divine commission was authenticated by means of the charismatic gifts of the early New Testament church. It is vital to understand this: that in those early days, when false apostles abounded, the charismata were given for the purpose of authenticating the true apostolic messengers of Christ. Paul, for example, was able to prove his genuine apostleship by the miraculous signs that he did: “Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds” (2 Corinthians 12:12). The other apostles those who had heard the Lord in the days of His flesh enjoyed the same seal of approval and authority: “God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will” (Hebrews 2:4).
It is plain enough that the signs done by Paul and the other apostles themselves authenticated their apostolic commission, but what about the charismatic gifts exercised by others in the early New Testament church? At first sight it would seem that neither the healings wrought by Philip the evangelist in Samaria for example, nor the tongues spoken by sundry believers in Corinth, could possibly have the purpose of authenticating the apostles. But on closer examination it is in fact the case that every charismatic gift was the sign of an apostle! For they were all evidences of connection with an apostle.
This is made clear in the eighth chapter of Acts. Philip the evangelist, not an apostle, had come to the city of Samaria, and was not only preaching but also doing miracles. The charismatics take this as proof that all preachers, even non-apostolic ones, should expect to have their ministry authenticated by signs and wonders. But no! Even Philips signs were to authenticate the apostles. For whilst Philip could exercise charismatic gifts himself, he was altogether powerless to impart that ability to anyone else. Only the apostles, by God-given ability, could convey the charismata to others. The extraordinary manifestations of the Holy Spirit could not come upon any of the believers in Samaria by means of Philips ministry “as yet he was fallen upon none of them” (verse 16) that is, to give them charismatic gifts as on the Day of Pentecost. Only apostolic contact could impart the special charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit to others. Only when the apostles Peter and John came, did this happen: “Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost” (verse 17).
Therefore every occurrence of the charismata whoever it was that spoke in tongues, whoever it was that gave a prophecy, whoever it was that worked a miracle, whoever it was that performed a healing was always an authentication of the apostles, because in every case the possession of such a gift could be traced back to apostolic contact. No one but an apostle had instrumental ability to pass on charismatic gifts. In this regard, Simon the sorcerer, though he had neither part nor lot in saving grace, yet he understood far more than present-day charismatics about charismatic gifts when he “saw that through laying on of the apostles hands the Holy Ghost was given” (verse 18). Thus, whether charismatic gifts were wrought by the apostles themselves, or by evangelists like Philip, or by ordinary believers like those in Corinth, it made no difference. All the charismata were authenticating the apostles.
Do the apostles still need to be authenticated today? Surely not. Scriptures testimony of the charismata is sufficient evidence for us of their authentication from God. We must follow the principle laid down in John 20:30,31, “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” If we seek proof of apostolic commission, we must not look for miraculous signs to be done all over again before our very eyes, but we must believe the apostolic signs written for us in the Word of God.
Before the closing of the New Testament canon, apostolic ability to work miracles was already declining. In his last inspired epistle, Paul wrote, “Erastus abode at Corinth: but Trophimus have I left at Miletum sick” (2 Timothy 4:20). Why did Paul the apostle not heal Trophimus, if not for the reason that the charismatic gift of healing was already being withdrawn? Paul wrote only two more inspired verses after that one. By this means it seemed good to the Holy Ghost to show that already the apostles had been sufficiently confirmed and authenticated by the miracles that they had already done. Their charismatic gifts were no longer needed and were passing away if not yet altogether passed away.
Some charismatics try to evade this reasoning by insisting that the Church still has apostles today, who need their own personal authentication just as surely as the New Testament ones received theirs. But there cannot be apostles at the end of the twentieth century. For one thing, a necessary qualification of an apostle was that he had seen Christ, concerning which Paul wrote, “And last of all he was seen of me also, as one born out of due time” (1 Corinthians 15:8). Further, the ministry of the apostles, together with that of the New Testament prophets who exercised a charismatic gift of prophecy (like Agabus in Acts 11:28), was foundational. The New Testament Church was “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 2:20). A foundation does not have to be laid twice! Now that the apostolic foundation has been fully laid in the doctrines of the New Testament Scriptures written by them and their closest associates, the extraordinary office of apostle is no longer needed. It was a temporary office confined to the early days of the New Testament Church. Therefore, since there are no longer any apostles to authenticate, the authenticating charismata are redundant.
We have proved, then, that this second, authenticating, purpose of the charismata was temporary and long ago fulfilled. In so doing the second blow has been laid to the root of the charismatic tree with the cessationist axe. The gifts have ceased.
1. Pentecostalism, the forerunner of the charismatic movement, began about the beginning of the century, with the same central claim: to possess and practise charismatic gifts. It took its name from the Day of Pentecost, when the charismata were first manifested.
2. Since this paper was given, things have gone from the sublime to the ridiculous. Some charismatics are now claiming that God has turned their teeth to gold miraculously.